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September 17, 2009

The big tent of the atheists

Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently fall prey to the temptation to classify things in groups. I would have been in my element as a 19th century biologist implementing the Linnaean classification scheme of all living things. Recently I have been thinking that the term 'atheist' is associated with too narrow a meaning. In fact, I think that there are six different types of atheist.

The most common type of atheist is the explicit atheist. These are the people who say openly that they do not believe that god exists, and this is the group to whom the label is commonly believed to apply.

Then we have the covert atheists. These are people who no longer believe that god exists but do not feel that they can openly say so. The climate for atheists can be quite hostile in some parts of the world, enough to be socially ostracized or even lose one's job, requiring such people to keep mum about their lack of belief. Others may keep quiet because they belong to religious families and may not want to upset loved ones by speaking about their lack of belief. I suspect that the ranks of elected officials in the US or those seeking such office have a large number of covert atheists.

Other covert atheists work for religious institutions as priests or rabbis or ministers or imams. I have argued before that there is likely to be a high level of covert atheism among religious intellectuals, with the faculty of religion departments in colleges and theological seminaries, upper levels of the clergy, and the Pope being particularly good candidates.

But others may keep quiet about their atheism simply because they like belonging to churches, perhaps for the camaraderie (in many small towns the church and school are the main venues for social gatherings), perhaps because they like to sing in the choir, or because religious institutions provide avenues for social activism. Such people are willing to not speak of their atheism in return for enjoying these benefits.

Then there are the functional atheists. These are people who, while they may or may not say anything about their belief or disbelief in god, or even bother much with this question, live their lives as if god does not exist.

Then there are the agnostic atheists. These are people (like Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan) who reject the label of atheist and choose to call themselves agnostics because they have bought into the mistaken belief that atheists are certain that there is no god. Since they don't think one can know such a thing for certain, they call themselves agnostics. As I have argued before, such people are mistaken about what being an atheist implies and they could just as easily call themselves atheists without changing their views in any way.

The fifth category consists of the people I have been writing about recently, such as Karen Armstrong, H. E. Baber, and Robert Wright. They are the people who say they do believe in a god but when they go on to describe their object of belief, it turns out that they do not believe in anything that any traditional believer could relate to, since their god does absolutely nothing but seems to be simply an idea or an object of contemplation. I have called these people worshippers in the Church of the Slacker God but a snappier label for them might be the seemingly oxymoronic religious atheists.

Interestingly, R. Albert Mohler, who is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also sees people like Armstrong as atheists, whatever they call themselves, and seems to agree with me that that her kind of defense of god essentially concedes the debate to atheists. He calls Armstrong's argument 'superficial' and 'theologically reckless' and 'elegant nonsense', writing that "the exchange in The Wall Street Journal [between Armstrong and Richard Dawkins] turns out to be a meeting of two atheist minds. The difference, of course, is that one knows he is an atheist when the other presumably claims she is not. Dawkins knows a fellow atheist when he sees one. Careful readers of The Wall Street Journal will come to the same conclusion."

The final category is the spiritual atheist. As the powerful arguments of the atheists sink in and people realize that they cannot be refuted, you can expect to hear many more statements of the "I am not religious but I am spiritual" kind, which usually signals that the speaker is on the way to atheism (or at least has given up on god) but is as yet unwilling to acknowledge this to herself or to others. Because the word spiritual has such an elastic meaning it provides a way out of the impasse for those who shy away from embracing the label of atheism but don't want to be lumped with religious believers either. As usual, Jesus and Mo have a funny take on this.

The people known as 'accommodationists', who claim that the scientific and religious worldviews are either compatible or feel that the incompatibility should not be highlighted, can be found in all these groups. That label describes less of a personal belief and more of a preference for a political strategy.

So we see that atheists are 'big tent' people, welcoming all those who seek to escape from the intellectual straitjacket that religions put on people.

POST SCRIPT: Nutters day out

Max Blumenthal mingles with the crowd at last weekend's demonstration in Washington DC which seemed to bring out the nutters. Some of these people are major-league weird.

And talking of nutters, you may be wondering what Orly Taitz, the person who was leading the 'birther' movement, has been up to. Her most recent case (one of many she has filed that challenged Obama's right to deploy someone to Iraq because he had not proved his citizenship) was thrown out yesterday by a judge who, in a ruling remarkable for its mixture of ridicule and sarcasm, warned her that if she wastes the court's time again with such nonsense, she would face sanctions

Taitz's response to this stinging rebuke? She thinks the judge should be tried for treason! With Orly, the fun never ends.

A motion to have her disbarred for misconduct reveals depths of idiocy that even I had not imagined. This document is a list of just allegations that have not been proven but if even a small fraction are true they reveal a level of wackiness on Taitz's part that borders on delusional.

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Comments

Oh man, this birther stuff is hilarious:

"Captain Rhodes is presently... awaiting deployment to Iraq. This deployment is imminent and will likely occur absent an order from this court granting Plaintiff's motion for a temporary restraining order."

They're so nutty that even the courts think they might have to be restrained! Comedy gold. Thanks Mano!

Posted by Brock on September 17, 2009 12:41 PM

Very funny indeed. At least the judge showed some restraint. And wait till Obama hears of this. I am sure he'll deem her nutcase.

Cheers Mano

Posted by Koty on September 19, 2009 08:38 PM

Great post, and yes I believe in God, just that she is all around us and could be called an energy force. Really, religion is so restricting, one needs to think outside the box..... Regards, Vicki

Posted by Magic Spells on September 28, 2009 10:45 PM

I am a believer. God is the Alpha and the Omega. Nothing beats him! Nothing.

Posted by Montreal Dating on January 6, 2010 08:03 AM

By definition, an atheist is someone who either lacks belief in a god (weak atheist) or claims to know that there is none (strong atheist). By definition, an agnostic believes that God's existence cannot be determined (strong agnostic) or at least that it currently has not been determined (weak agnostic). By definition, a theist either believes that there is a god (weak theist) or claims to know that there is one (strong theist).

An atheist can be an agnostic and an agnostic can be an atheist. However, it is a leap of faith to argue that agnostics are all atheists. Furthermore, it is completely illogical to argue that those who state belief in God are actually atheists simply because their God "does not do anything." I am a strong agnostic (God cannot be proven) and a weak theist (I believe that God exists anyway but since he cannot be proven, I am, by definition, a weak theist) who believes that God only does things in the afterlife and not in the here and now. I am definitely not an atheist under any definition of atheism except for the silly one that you are inventing and which does not appear in any dictionary.

Atheism is not a "big tent." Atheists, by definition, believe (or claim to know) that God does not exist. If you do not know whether God exists, you are, by definition, an agnostic. If you believe (or claim to know) that God exists, you are a believer. You are allowed your own opinions, but not your own facts nor your own definitions.

Posted by Carolyn Wu on May 31, 2010 01:11 AM

Carolyn,

People can call themselves what they like but this post dealt with what difference there is functionally in their behavior as a result of their beliefs. All the categories I listed above represent people who do not think that god acts in any way whatsoever in this world, which is what atheists believe.

Your specific case of someone who believes that god does not act in this world at all but acts only in the afterlife is one that I had not encountered before and so did not consider it.

What evidence do you have that god acts in the afterlife? And why do you think that god does not act in this life?

Posted by Mano on May 31, 2010 10:57 AM

There is no evidence that God acts in the afterlife, nor can there be, because one cannot prove that there is an afterlife until one experiences it. However, it is not correct that one can posit that one must prove this because the afterlife, by definition, exists outside the realm of experiential science. There is simply no way to prove it one way or another (by the way, there are things, called first axioms, as you are well aware that science cannot prove either but must be accepted on faith, so if you go down the "we must prove everything path," you find that it comes back to bite you.

In any case, given that I do not accept that God intervenes and that there is no proof possible regarding the existence of the afterlife, why would I believe? It certainly gives me comfort to think that a person who murders and is not punished in this life will be punished in the next. It gives me comfort that the multitudes who are suffering will find their suffering eased in the next life. It makes the twin problems of evil and suffering mere transitory states. A child sent to her room "suffers" and may even consider her parent "evil" but neither the suffering nor the evil lasts forever. The horrors that Adolf Hitler visited upon 6 million Jews are impossible to accept unless Adolf Hitler is somehow punished for his sins (and merely having him die is insufficient punishment for his crimes against the Jewish people).

Why do I think that God does not act in this life? Well, I would think that if God did act in this life, he would destroy both free will and faith. If God were to appear before me, then I no longer have a real choice in terms of what I ought to do (yes, I could actively disobey but the consequences of such actions are obviously more akin to a slave rebellion or a child in rebellion, rather than a free person, meaning that one has no real choice). Furthermore, it would destroy faith. God simply would be. We would all then either immediately worship Him because it is the right thing to do or immediately rebel because, well, we want something (kind of silly, though, because God can give you anything you want if you obey Him and can deny you anything you want if you don't, by definition, right?).

Posted by Carolyn Wu on May 31, 2010 02:38 PM

Carolyn,

These are not arguments, they are wishful thinking. Just because you think that god's appearance would destroy faith and belief in free will is not an argument for god.

You want something to comfort you, so you invent a god that seems to meet your needs. But wishing and hoping cannot create reality.

Posted by Mano on May 31, 2010 11:24 PM

Of course, they are wishful thinking, Dr. Singham. However, I object to the notion that I have "invented" God. I most certainly did not. It is possible that I am using a false construct that was invented by someone else but I most certainly am not intelligent enough to be able to come up with such an invention.

Furthermore, you asked me for why I believed God does not act in this life. You did not ask me for why I believed in God. These are two different things. I provided a valid argument for why God might not wish to act in this life. Unless you can prove how a God can maintain free will and faith when, in fact, He has proven to be true, you cannot assault this argument.

Instead, you come up with a different argument, which is the same argument that you keep making: God does not exist. However, I am unassailable on this point. I agree with you that God cannot be proven. Therefore, I simply choose to believe. You simply choose not to believe. I submit that belief in God is similar to beliefs in various ideologies. Do we argue that conservatism is correct or liberalism is incorrect? Do we denegrate those who take a position opposite from us on such political questions (well, yes, we do but to argue that this means that one standpoint is correct and the other is incorrect, well, isn't that opinion?).

Interestingly, the notion that this is more akin to opinion (and thus not proveable) can be demonstrated by science. Just as the brains of liberals and conservatives are different, some of us hard-wired for believing in God (such as me) and others are hard-wired for not believing (such as you)? See the work of Dr. Andrew Newberg in his book "Why We Believe What We Believe" and the experiements that he has undertaken:

http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=3157321&page=1

This, of course, makes the fundamentalist tenant (which cannot be found in the Bible, by the way) that atheists are condemned to hellfire, well, untenable (the Biblical references that are used actually are to be used against those who believe and then reject belief, not those who never believe--I still think that these were inserted by religious leaders who didn't want their flock to leave, which, by the way, is a good reason for those who currently believe to never turn towards atheism and those who do not beleive to never become believers unless they really 100% believe).

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 1, 2010 08:02 AM

Carolyn,

I have enjoyed reading your posts. Here is something I am curious about. I think I understand your point about the free will thing. If this logic applies now, why doesn't it apply in the afterlife, when you expect to finally "know" whether there is a god? Do you believe that there is there no free will in the afterlife?

Jared

Posted by Jared A on June 1, 2010 12:20 PM

No, I don't think that there is such a thing as "free will" in the afterlife because I think that the afterlife isn't like the current life wherein you can make choices (choices are implied when you have free will). Either you are in Heaven, in which case there is no scarcity (and hence no choices) or you are in Hell, in which case, well, you are being punished, so scarcity is irrelevant.

Alternatively, if you take the Buddhist perspective of Nirvana as a starting point, in Heaven, there might be limitations, but you don't care, so, again, no free will (you are freed from your sufferings so you lose all care).

After all, since God can create all things, he can create a world without suffering, evil, etc.

So why didn't he? Isn't that the problem of evil or suffering? Well, don't we ask that our children learn to live with less (allowances) than we can give? Don't we ask that we learn to cherish that which is given? If you think of this world as a place where you are placed for a limited duration in order to learn a lesson for your eternal soul, the sufferings in this world (which are exclusively the result of our physical beings) become microscopically small.

I tend to think of us as being little children, needing rules and constraints (see laws of universe) in order to understand proper ordering of behavior. It is only when we free ourselves from our hatred, our pettiness, etc. that we can embrace our divine spirit and venture into Heaven. Just as we do not intercede as parents to stop our children from things that will not cause lasting harm (and, from Heaven's perspective, nothing we do causes lasting harm), God does not intercede. However, that doesn't mean that we don't punish afterwards. I know that my daughter will do things that cause me displeasure but do I stop her or do I let her do so in order for her to learn for herself? Of course, under such a laissez-faire policy, it is possible for her to turn into a monster, but would it not be more likely if I keep her under my thumb? I have given her guidance but must trust that she will do what is right or else I really didn't trust her, right? That, to me, is the purpose of free will. It is not meant to enslave us but to teach us, just as each generation learns, that our elders do have wisdom after all (even if they do seem a little stupid when we are young).

The fact that we have universal tenants (do not kill, do not steal, do not covet thy neighbor's wife, etc.) suggests that there is a universal morality and the only real difference is that God does not interfere with our ability to determine this for ourselves. But I would hope that there was some end result for all this, not just a good society. Since some people are quite content to cause havoc, I would hope that they would be punished (like the bullies on the playgrounds eventually are, one way or another). While Dr. Singham may consider this wishful thinking, I would consider it a moral imperative. After all, why is it that mankind developed morality? Please note that this is not an argument in favor of intelligent design because I subscribe to the "infinite parallel universes" theory of physics, which suggests that everything is possible in some universe (including, by the way, the possibility that there are some universes that do not adhere to our "laws of physics"). Thus, what we think of as "intelligent design" is actually, quite ironically, mere random chance. It just so happens that we are in one of those universes where the random chances have worked themselves into what we see today (and, ironically, in another of those universes, Dr. Singham is the Pope and the most ardent believer in God that ever existed and I am the world's leading atheist). Funny, isn't it?

Posted by Caroly Wu on June 1, 2010 02:39 PM


No, I don't think that there is such a thing as "free will" in the afterlife because I think that the afterlife isn't like the current life wherein you can make choices (choices are implied when you have free will).
...
I tend to think of us as being little children, needing rules and constraints (see laws of universe) in order to understand proper ordering of behavior.


So we are here to learn how to make good choices, in preparation for a time when we will never make choices again? I'm confused.

Posted by Paul Jarc on June 2, 2010 10:03 AM

By definition, in Heaven, you do not have to make choices since, by definition, it is supposed to be some kind of magical place where there is no scarcity.

However, Heaven, in my conception is a reward. You get all the stuff you want because you did what was right. Indeed, whether this is the case or not, it seems self-evident (to me) that if God were to reveal himself, free will would cease.

There is still the possibility of Hell. Thus, it is not that you "learn how to make good choices" in this life but rather the consequences of your "good choices" is Heaven, wherein you do not need to make any choices, while the consequences of your "bad choices" is Hell, wherein you are never allowed to make choices again.

Think of it this way: prison is a place that is a punishment for making bad choices. The consequence of those bad choices is that we take away your ability to make choices and give you misery. However, if you make good choices and are conditioned to only make "good choices", then, at least as far as a choice between "good choices" and "bad choices" (which, from God's perspective is the only aspect of "free will"), then won't you, by definition, lose free will by continually making good choices? I mean, I suppose that you could still choose between ice cream and cake in Heaven but you don't have to--you can have both!.

After all, if you are conditioned to do what is right, do you really have a choice about doing wrong?

In any case, my conception of Heaven is not derived from any scripture but rather logic and if there is a logical fallacy in it, I feel free to change my opinion of what Heaven is like since my conception of Heaven is pure conjecture on my part. In truth, the only axiom I am using is that Heaven is good and Hell is bad.

For a discussion, however, on why I am irrational to have such axioms (and so are you for any axioms that you have) and, indeed, why both atheism and theism suffer fundamentally from irrationalilty, see

Religion vs. Science: Axiom Wars


Reading Dr. Browm will also illuminate you as to why religious scripture is completely bogus:

The Common Memes of Religious Scripture


Why to believe in religion is to be irrational:

The Fundamental Axioms of Religion

And (drum roll please) why believing in science is also irrational:

Why Science (Natural Philosophy) is BS

Now Professor Brown of Duke University's physics department is a scientist, so while he freely admits that science is irrational (actually, he uses the term BS spelled out, so if you have "virgin eyes", you might not want to read him), he does claim it is "useful BS" as opposed to religion, which he regards as "useless BS" -- but only because he doesn't completely accept his own Axiom of Open-Mindedness:

Axiom of Open-Mindedness

Because if he did, he would understand that the truth is actually the other way around--at least according to the creationists.

Oh, and here is the best part, which I don't think he stated, but he certainly implies: truth is BS too! After all, it requires an axiom, which by the way is an unverified assumption which either is "self-evident" (which requires that both parties in any discussion agree that it is self-evident or else, well, it isn't self-evident or that it is the subject of a necessary decision, which, by the way, is defined as being necessary for me to blow your opinion out of the water.

Now who is the true skeptic here? Hey, if you want to call my beliefs BS, I'll (eventually), like Professor Brown does, admit that they are but, here is the dirty little secret polite company never state to one another, so are yours.

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 2, 2010 12:45 PM

Carolyn,

You seem to be taking the position that since nothing that can be proven by logic, all beliefs are equally irrational.

Let me ask you a question. I cannot prove that when I step out of my home I will get attacked by a lion. I also cannot prove that when I stop out of my house I will NOT get attacked by a lion. According to you, both beliefs are irrational. I have two options, depending on which belief I have: stay inside the house forever or go about my normal life. Are they equally irrational?

My point, of course, is that logic only takes you so far and logical proof is not the only factor to be taken into account in determining rationality. You also need evidence on which to apply the logic to arrive at rational conclusions.

Posted by Mano on June 2, 2010 03:18 PM

No, Dr. Singham, you read too much into it. I merely state that rationality itself is irrational to the extent that it requires that we have axioms. Go and read Dr. Brown's work. Basically, everything is BS but there is a difference between useful BS and useless BS. If you look at his work on metaaxioms (of which the Axiom of Open-Mindedness is one, but there are several), you understand that he has a system of determining what is more or less rational (of course, that depends on accepting the Axiom of Open-Mindedness, which is, itself, an irrational decision).

The key to understand it is that at its core, all disagreement between parties comes about in only two basic ways: disagreements on the axioms or an error in the process after we agree on the axioms. If the error is in the process, we call that a logical flaw and that is precisely what you keep trying to use to "disprove" religion. However, if there disagreement occurs with the axioms, there can be no reconciliation of the two positions. The reason why theists and atheists disagree and are destined to disagree is that theists and atheists fundamentally disagree on the axioms, i.e., theists and atheists are fundamentally "wired" differently. Interestingly, science proves this (that is if you are willing to accept the axioms of science) as I have previously suggested in a comment on your blog.

Taking these positions as given, the only logical conclusion that a true scientist can make is that the reason why theists are unconvinced by atheist arguments (and vice versa) is at the axiomatic level. But if it is at the axiomatic level and there, therefore, is no good (i.e., rational) reason to believe in the axiom (it merely is "self-evident" but obviously only to the believer in the axiom) or a necessary decision (and that is a decision only by the believer in the axiom), then there really is no use in trying to convince the other person that you are right. So I ask you, Professor Singham, is it logical to tilt at windmills? Neither you nor the theists can ever win the argument. In fact, you really can't even win over anyone if we are just "wired" that way. What instead you are doing is simply convincing yourself of your inherent intellectual superiority over your opponent but, in fact, that too is an illusion since your superiority derives only because you cannot see the position of the other. In other words, both theists and atheists are doomed to argue endlessly with one another because both are, well, too arrogant to do otherwise.

Of course, I as a strong agnostic am a touch arrogant too. I think that you got that from my point that there is no proof of God that I would accept as being true. As it is my understanding that it is the atheist position that God cannot be disproven, then I wonder why I should consider going from a weak theist to a weak atheist.

Indeed, I can give you an excellent reason to deny atheism fundamentally as an agnostic and it should appeal to your sense of complete and total rationality: if I became a weak atheist (and there is nothing that one could be if one agrees that God is unknowable) despite the fact that I do not believe that God can be proven nor disproven, there is a very practical problem to overcome. You see, the religion that I belong to (and in fact was born into) does not take kindly to leaving the faith. Therefore, if I did leave the faith, I would be on even more death lists than I already am on (and I am on several all thanks to the fact that I happen to be an expert on the legal system that underlies that faith and that expertise has been broadcast in a manner that runs counter to the sensibilities of those who, shall we say, don't understand the concept of free speech?). Since I value my life, I actually have a double Pascalean wager to make: after all, the issue is really not whether or not God exists or not. To me, His existence is immaterial for me to believe in Him. The real issue is whether or not certain factions within my religion will condone what they will inevitably see as the final severing of my admittedly weak linkage to my birth faith. So, what would you do in my situation: become an atheist and face a dramatically increased risk of death for, well, no real rewards or remain a theist. Oh, and, before you place me in that "big tent of yours", know this: if I truly believed that God did not exist, I could not in good conscience hide it, for that would be living a lie and that is morally unacceptable to me. Finally, there is an additional practical problem: how would I go about reforming this admittedly unreformed religion into an enlightenment period that could potentially defang it (yes, that is wishful thinking but so is your battle to eliminate religion--only I think that my battle actually has a much greater chance of winning since I do not attack directly the axioms upon which the religion is based and am still considered at least nominally one of the faithful) if I am no longer one of the faithful? No, this religion must be reformed by demonstrating how its radicalization is caused by erroneous interpretations of its core documents and how a more enlightened interpretation can lead to peace, harmony, and, dare I say it, Unitarian Universalism, which is 100% compatible with your beloved science (as well as your avowed atheism), and, which I submit to you qualifies as a uniquely "good" religion under any definition that you might choose to discern.

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 2, 2010 11:18 PM